Degradation leads to dramatic decrease in topsoil but not subsoil root biomass in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau, China

Abstract

Understanding the effects of degradation on belowground biomass (BGB) is essential for assessment of carbon budget of the alpine meadow ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau, China. This ecosystem has been undergoing serious degradation owing to climate change and anthropogenic activities. This study examined the response of the vertical distribution of plant BGB to degradation and explored the underlying mechanisms in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau. A field survey was conducted in an alpine meadow with seven sequential degrees of degradation in the Zoige Plateau on the Tibetan Plateau during the peak growing season of 2018. We measured aboveground biomass (AGB), BGB, soil water content (SWC), soil bulk density (SBD), soil compaction (SCOM), soil organic carbon (SOC), soil total nitrogen (STN), soil total phosphorus (STP), soil available nitrogen (SAN), and soil available phosphorus (STP) in the 0–30 cm soil layers. Our results show that degradation dramatically decreased the BGB in the 0–10 cm soil layer (BGB0–10) but slightly increased the subsoil BGB. The main reason may be that the physical-chemical properties of surface soil were more sensitive to degradation than those of subsoil, as indicated by the remarked positive associations of the trade-off value of BGB0–10 with SWC, SCOM, SOC, STN, SAN, and STP, as well as the negative correlation between the trade-off value of BGB0–10 and SBD in the soil layer of 0–10 cm. In addition, an increase in the proportion of forbs with increasing degradation degree directly affected the BGB vertical distribution. The findings suggest that the decrease in the tradeoff value of BGB0–10 in response to degradation might be an adaptive strategy for the degradation-induced drought and infertile soil conditions. This study can provide theoretical support for assessing the effects of degradation on the carbon budget and sustainable development in the alpine meadow ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau as well as other similar ecosystems in the world.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the State Key Research Development Program of China (2016YFC0501803, 2016YFC0501802), the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2017M620889), and the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research (2019QZKK0405). We appreciate the contributions of Dr. HOU Ge and Dr. MA Baibing in field survey and lab activities.

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Correspondence to Jian Sun.

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Zhang, Z., Liu, M., Sun, J. et al. Degradation leads to dramatic decrease in topsoil but not subsoil root biomass in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau, China. J. Arid Land 12, 806–818 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40333-020-0074-x

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Keywords

  • belowground biomass
  • soil properties
  • plant community structure
  • degradation
  • alpine meadow
  • Tibetan Plateau